Resource-guarding: Are veterinarians lost in interspecies translation?

Resource-guarding: Are veterinarians lost in interspecies translation?

This catchall phrase used to describe aggressive behavior in dogs can actually do more harm than good.
Jul 01, 2014

Evolutionary biologists will tell you that animals make decisions based on four operant environments: demographic, biophysical, social and resource-related. Behaviors change depending on how these environments interact. For example, anyone watching birds at feeders in the spring and early summer will notice that females eat and males forgo eating to attempt courtship. As a result, males of many species lose weight in the breeding season.

So, the way we view food is not absolute, and an animal's behavior must be both defined and interpreted in the context of other events. Unfortunately, most people rarely use this approach when discussing aggressive reactions in dogs, and we know little about the range of any canine responses, whether "normal" or "abnormal."1-3

Can we define "resource-guarding"?

In the past few years, I have increasingly heard a term that could benefit from this approach: resource-guarding. Few terms are as blurry and inconsistent as this one. I have heard trainers and clients say, "The dog is fine; he just resource-guards," meaning no other dog in the house can approach him when he has a toy. (The implication here is that resource-guarding is "normal," but this dog is not fine.)

I have heard people label the dog that growls and trembles, spilling food from its mouth because someone has instructed its owners to constantly move their hands around in the food as the dog eats (no one should subject any dog to such threats), as one that's "dangerous resource-guarding." In these examples and many more, the term resource-guarding provides no helpful information, and the assumption that it does can be dangerous.

How did we get to the place where everything and everyone is a resource and resource-guarding can apparently be applied to any situation?

I spend endless hours asking clients, trainers, dog breeders, veterinarians, students—even my resident—to elaborate on and clarify the terms they use. In veterinary behavioral medicine we have no protected terminology, so the process of sifting through layers of meaning and possible misdirection is an essential skill.

Diagnostic terminology in this field generally takes one of three approaches:

1. It's named for the recipient of the inappropriate, undesirable or problematic behaviors (e.g. owner-directed aggression, stranger-directed aggression, dog-directed aggression),

2. It's named for the putative driver of the behavior (e.g. offensive aggression, defensive aggression, affective aggression), or

3. It's named phenotypically using criteria that unite the observed behaviors with a pattern or context of concern (e.g. food-related aggression, fear aggression, panic disorder, separation anxiety).

The first approach is largely driven by risk to the recipients of the behaviors and is a human-centric approach. The other two approaches primarily focus on the dog. I personally favor the third, the phenotypic approach, for simple, logical reasons:

> If you can understand a behavior by identifying the circumstances under which it occurs, you can avoid those circumstances (and a good diagnostic description, definition or set of criteria allows you to do this).

> By understanding the overarching rule (i.e. the diagnosis) for the suite of behaviors exhibited by the dog in a certain context, you can recognize patterns of response that might help with anticipating other concerns. You can also ask if those patterns share mechanisms or respond to the same interventions and medications.

> The phenotypic approach allows the clinician to interpret rare nonspecific signs within a context in which the dog can be helped. For example, a dog whose video reveals that, when left alone, he spends all day frantically rearranging fruit bowls is more likely to have an odd form of separation anxiety than he is to have a fruit fetish.

Although it sounds like one, the term resource-guarding not a good phenotypic diagnosis, and a bit of thought reveals why.

> The resources are not defined. In common usage, resources have become everything from toys to dinner to treats to a specific lap or a certain part of the yard. A definition that includes every subject is no definition at all.

> No distinction is made between normal and abnormal behaviors. Clients can find normal behaviors problematic and may like abnormal behaviors; the client's opinion is not what defines "normal."

> In some patients, aberrant behaviors may have been adaptive in another context, a point almost never considered when abnormal behaviors are discussed.